A Failure to Communicate – Letters from a Jamaican in China

In the process of arguing over the price of toilet bowls (someone had asked me to research) my friend Echo and I were interrupted by my phone ringing. It was my Chinese-American friend asking if I wanted to meet him for lunch. This was a good thing because Echo’s price for translating for me was lunch. She would not accept money, only a lunch. So we finished the potty business and went to meet my friend. I introduced Echo and she immediately said in Mandarin “Wow, your English is perfect.” He replied, “What?” He can’t speak any of the Chinese languages. He was born and raised overseas. We went through lunching talking and laughing about the differences between the States and China. When lunch was over we went our separate ways and promised to do it again soon.

The next week Echo called to invite me to a get together at her house on Saturday. I accepted the invitation and asked if there was anything she would like me to bring. And she said I could bring some bananas. On Wednesday she called again to confirm that I was coming and also bringing Michael (my Chinese-American friend). I assured her I would invite him and I would be there.

That Saturday I got off work and met him downstairs so we could head off to the party. Right before we got into a cab, I remembered the bananas. I asked the driver to wait and went to the fruit stand across the street. When we got to her apartment it was pretty much full of Chinese and a small amount of westerners. I introduced myself and Michael and she asked what I had in the bag. I replied, ”Oh yeah, it’s the bananas you asked me for.” She said, “What?” I said,” Remember I asked you what you wanted me to bring and you said for me to bring the bananas.” Just then the room fell silent and everyone looked at each other and then looked at the floor. “You did say bananas didn’t you?” then I felt terrible. I didn’t want to be the girl that brought the wrong thing to her party. A friend of hers quickly said she would put them in the kitchen and advised us to eat and drink anything we wanted. There was still a bit of tension in the party. I kept wondering what I did to offend everyone. I was sure that was she’d asked for. I found a corner to sulk in and avoided conversation with everyone. Then a German guy came to ask me why I wasn’t mingling. I explained the way I was feeling. And then he laughed and explained to me that no one was mad at me. When she told me to ”bring the banana” she was not referring to actual bananas, but to Michael, because he appeared Chinese and couldn’t speak the language or identify with Chinese people. Yellow skin, white heart. Have you ever walked into the bathroom of the opposite sex and only realized it when there is a person looking just as surprised as you are staring back at you? Do you know what it feels like to run out of that bathroom and have people see you and realize you went into the wrong bathroom and see the look of confusion/judgment on their faces? Magnify that by a thousand, and you’ll get a fraction of what I felt. I think I would have felt better thinking everyone was mad at me.

I later called my friend to tell her that I didn’t appreciate the way in which she referred to Michael. She assured me that she was really only joking and if she didn’t like him she wouldn’t have asked me to bring him. Michael confessed that he knew the instant I made the banana remark exactly what was going on. But didn’t want to tell me because he knew it would upset me. He actually found it hilarious and couldn’t believe that I was that clueless.

I was not familiar with Chinese racial slurs. I didn’t even think that racism was possible here. Banana: that’s what Mainland Chinese people call pretty much anyone who does not identify or agree with Chinese culture or ideals. This group includes Hong Kong and Taiwan. I know that people from Hong Kong and Taiwan look down on the mainland too, but I’m not sure if they have a derogatory term for them. This is China, everyone here is Chinese, what could you possible find to discriminate against someone like you?! But it happens. It makes feel like the world will never be a peaceful place.

About the author

Shelly Ann Wauchope